Making the decision to go to college can raise some financial questions. What if it costs more than you think you can afford? What kind of financial aid can you receive? At Center for Advanced Legal Studies, we are committed to helping each paralegal student get all the funding he/she is eligible to receive.
Your first step to apply for financial aid is to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The key word here is FREE. It can be intimidating at first glance, but if you go in prepared to research and spend a little time, you will realize how easy it can be. Don’t ever pay anyone to complete the FAFSA for you.
The process has gotten simpler over the past couple of years, because you can now retrieve you and your spouse’s and/or parent’s income information directly from the IRS. In other words, you don’t have to struggle anymore trying to find your adjusted gross income, taxes paid, and income earned from work, etc. Now you can retrieve all this information with just the click of a mouse. Not only does this streamline the process of the application, it also cuts down on human error.
For the FAFSA, you’ll need to determine your dependency status. Why? Because it determines whose information you must put on the FAFSA. If you are considered a dependent student, you will need your information and your parents’ or guardian’s information on the FAFSA. “Oh,” you say, “I have a job and my own apartment, and I pay my own bills.” This alone does not make you an independent student for financial aid eligibility. If you are classified as a dependent student, you must report both you and your parents’ or guardian’s information.
If you are classified as an independent student, you will only report your information (and your spouse’s information if you are married).
When to Apply?
You can complete the FAFSA as early as January 1st for the upcoming award year. For example, if you are planning to attend college in 2014, you can complete the 2014/2015 FAFSA as early as January 1, 2014. You will be required to use your 2013 income tax information for the 2014/2015 FAFSA. It can get a little confusing because most colleges and universities have their own deadline for awarding certain funding, so check with your school. Because we are a continuously enrolling college, Center for Advanced Legal Studies does not have a deadline. You just complete the appropriate FAFSA prior to enrolling.
Where to Apply?
You can complete your FAFSA at www.fafsa.gov.
Haven’t decided where to go to school yet? No problem, you can list several options you are considering, and each school will receive a copy of your FAFSA. You can always add another institution if needed. (If you wish to add Center for Advanced Legal Studies to you list of college options, our school code is 026047.)
Bottom line, do your research and apply as early as you can. The 2013/2014 FAFSA is available now and the 2014/2015 FAFSA will be available on January 1, 2014.
Lori Baggett has been the Financial Aid Director at Center for Advanced Legal Studies for 20 years and has helped thousands of students receive funding and finance their paralegal education. She is an expert on Financial Aid and committed to assisting our students. If you are interested in a paralegal education and the personalized financing options available to you, contact us at 1.800.446.6931 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Center for Advanced Legal Studies: Experts in paralegal education. Committed to YOUR success.
By Thomas B. Swanson, J.D.
Let’s take a look back in time…
During most of the history of the practice of law, legal documents were handwritten by skilled paralegals first known as scribes and later as scriveners. Legal documents during this period were customized, and the quality of the handwriting, in addition to the content, was important. In other words, legal documents were distinctive, in part, because the handwriting added an artistic quality. Beginning in about 1900, this was to change in a major way with the introduction of the typewriter.
The typewriter offered not only much greater efficiency with respect to the preparation of legal documents, it also established a much greater uniformity. The distinctive handwriting of the scrivener gave way to a new consistency in format and a greater focus on content. The result was no less than a transformation of the practice of law, as well as the role of the paralegal. The “Perry Mason/Della Street” era in the history of law practice had begun, and the legal secretary became the primary non-lawyer presence in the law office.
A change in skill-sets…
Scriveners typically had a significant knowledge of the law, including both Latin and vernacular terminology, as well as handwriting skills suitable for the preparation of legal documents. The important qualities of the legal secretaries were rapid, accurate typing skills and the ability to take “shorthand.” Thus, the specialized handwriting skills of the scrivener gave way to secretary’s skill in using symbols and abbreviations so as to take down the verbalizing of legal documents and correspondence from the attorney. The ultimate effect of this change in skill sets was a wide range of variance of legal knowledge on the part of legal secretaries. Some legal secretaries were “key beaters,” meaning that they prepared legal documents with little understanding of the law or the content contained in the documents that they prepared. Others developed such a great understanding of the law that some legal secretaries became licensed attorneys without having to attend law school.
The introduction of word processers in the 1970’s and desk top computers in the 1980’s to the legal workplace ended the era of typewriters and “dictaphones” and eliminated the need for most legal secretaries to know how to take shorthand. These advances in technology diminished the need for legal secretaries because drafts of documents could be easily edited, meaning that the preparer of a document did not have to re-type a corrected draft in its entirety. Legal secretaries began to be replaced by paralegals, who were multi-skilled non-lawyers with formal education and training in the law.
Where we are now…
The most recent major change pertaining to the preparation of legal documents is the move to “formulary practice.” It is characterized by comprehensive uniformity of document content in many practice areas, including real estate law, family law, probate law, debt collection law, and so forth. For example, the State Bar of Texas offers comprehensive uniform document systems such as the Texas Family Practice Manual, Texas Probate System, and the Texas Collections Manual. These systems are provided in paper and digitized formats and provide comprehensive “fill in the blank” forms for every aspect of the practice area.
In addition to formulary practice systems for specific practice areas, there are also general online formulary systems. One such common system is ProDoc, which is owned by the same folks who own Westlaw. ProDoc is a comprehensive online formulary system for both litigation and office practice documents and, like Westlaw, access is obtained by subscription (normally limited to legal professionals). The advantage of the online system is that changes to documents mandated by amendments to statutes, regulations, and rules of procedure can be incorporated into system’s documents immediately. Formulary documents are not identical because the needs and problems of clients vary. Rather, formulary documents have basic formats that are capable of being edited. This is just one reason why legal training is required in order to properly use such systems. Using a formulary document without a complete understanding of the document and how it should be edited to suit a particular need or problem can harm rather aid the client.
A word of advice to paralegal students and working paralegals: When preparing a document from a formulary system, review it carefully before sending it to the attorney for review and again before sending it out. Do not simply “press a key and assume that all is well.” Remember that a critical duty of the paralegal is “quality control” so that errors are avoided.
The move to formulary practice of law should reduce the cost of legal services and lead to new duties and challenges for the 21st Century paralegal. What a wonderful time in history it is to be a paralegal!
Thomas B. Swanson, J.D. is the Academic Dean at Center for Advanced Legal Studies and has been teaching at CALS since 1987. He received his Doctor of Jurisprudence from South Texas College of Law in 1981; prior to that he served in the Air Force as a paralegal and obtained his undergraduate degree from the University of Florida. “Give me students with a little bit of interest in the law, and they’ll have a whole lot of interest before they leave.”
Are you wanting to find out for yourself why now is a wonderful time to become a paralegal? Contact us at email@example.com or 1.800.446.6931 with any questions about the paralegal profession or our paralegal programs.
When I became a paralegal in 1984, it was very common for paralegals to sit at their desks all day with their headphones on and type a variety of documents such as motions, pleadings, and correspondence, dictated by an attorney via the Dictaphone. The role of the paralegal has since evolved from secretarial typists or transcribers to highly qualified staff members who perform a variety of tasks to support lawyers, including maintaining and organizing files, conducting legal research, and drafting documents.
Since the paralegal profession has evolved to include more substantive legal work, those wishing to become a paralegal usually seek formal training to gain the legal knowledge necessary to work alongside an attorney. But in order to really excel in the paralegal profession, there are several characteristics and skills that are important to possess and develop in addition to legal knowledge. After working as a paralegal, I went to law school and became an attorney and employer of paralegals, so I’ve seen first-hand the characteristics and skills that make a paralegal exceptional. Here are 5 things that every attorney expects from his or her paralegal:
1. Punctuality & Attendance
Attorneys’ expectations are often very simple - be present and on time. Should any extreme circumstances arise that cause one to be absent or late, you must call and let your attorney know. Being late can wreak havoc on an attorney if they need you to be in the office. When I was an attorney, I recall one time I was in court and needed some information; however, much to my dismay and frustration, calling my office every five minutes didn’t make my paralegal magically appear at her desk.
Attendance and punctuality are some of the simplest yet most important things a paralegal can achieve in a job. Punctual paralegals with outstanding attendance are indispensable to an attorney.
2. Communication Skills
Paralegals need to be good communicators, constantly developing both their written and verbal skills. Writing skills are vital to a paralegal’s success. When writing petitions, briefs, and even business letters, paralegals must be able to write properly structured sentences and utilize correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar. It is imperative that paralegals proofread their work, use spell check, check for grammatical errors, and focus on proper writing techniques.
Excellent verbal skills will also help a paralegal communicate effectively, and will cut down on misunderstandings and increase a paralegal’s productivity. Upon receipt of work instructions from an attorney, paralegals who are effective communicators will ask questions and seek clarification on their work assignments.
Not only is it important for paralegals to communicate well with their attorneys, but let’s not forget about the clients. Paralegals can assist their attorneys by mastering the kind of communication that clients appreciate, answering and making phone calls, sending copies of documents, and answering emails.
3. Language Skills
Attorneys expect paralegals to know general legal terms that are commonly used, such as depositions, interrogatories, and requests for admissions in all areas of law. The legal profession is full of written materials which require paralegals to continuously expand their vocabulary. A dictionary can be advantageous to a paralegal in learning to master both the English language and the language of law.
4. Organizational Skills
Organizational skills are paramount to being an effective paralegal. They facilitate a paralegal’s ability to create and manage calendar systems, track court dates, and meet filing deadlines. Additionally, legal research materials, such as case law, must be organized in a method that they can be easily navigated and retrieved. Documents in a legal case are useless unless they are properly filed and indexed so the documents may be pulled quickly and easily at any time.
5. Technology skills
Today’s most sought-after paralegal skills are technology skills. Employers do not want to teach you how to use a computer. It is expected that a paralegal will know how to operate and navigate a computer and legal software proficiently. In addition, litigation support and e-filing are becoming commonplace in the legal field. It’s important during your paralegal training and on the job to learn to use various paperless court filing systems and be able to successfully file and manage documents online.
It takes more than just legal knowledge to be an excellent paralegal. It takes hands-on skills and an organized and reliable personality. Many of the skills listed above can be developed and worked on during your paralegal education. Are you interested in developing your paralegal skills at Center for Advanced Legal Studies? We’re here to give you a competitive paralegal education complete with job-ready skills, and we’re committed to our students’ success.
Elaine Prappas, J.D., has experience in every aspect of the paralegal field, as a paralegal student, paralegal, practicing attorney, and paralegal instructor. She is now an Admissions Advisor at Center for Advanced Legal Studies, and she looks forward to helping you achieve your career goals. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 1.800.446.6931 for more information on the paralegal career field or our paralegal programs.
By James I. Wiedemer, Attorney at Law and Center for Advanced Legal Studies’ Real Estate Law Professor
I really don't want to go to trial without a litigation paralegal. It's just too hard to stay organized and fight hard without one. One of the key things a litigation paralegal does is "man" the trial notebook. It's sort of like manning the main gun on a tank. It's a key weapon at trial. I’d like to share a couple of thoughts on good trial paralegals and good trial notebooks— the two, in my book, are virtually synonymous.
Winston Churchill once said of one of his key staffers: "He knew everything. He could lay his hand on anything. He said nothing. He had the confidence of all." Paralegals need to be a lot like Winston Churchill's staffer. Although they don't get to testify or present at trial in a verbal sense, nevertheless they are key fighters in the case. They know everything, and they can lay their hand on any paper. Here are 6 tips every paralegal needs to know about the trial notebook.
1. Paralegals need to be able to "lay their hand on anything."
Here is one “war story,” if you will: I was at one J.P. Court trial. My paralegal was so well-organized that when the judge mentioned he wanted to see a particular item, I just reached back, without looking and without even taking my eyes off the judge, and my paralegal plopped exactly the right exhibit I needed into my hand. I hardly even needed to glance. I knew she had the right item. She knew what was needed, when it was needed, and where it was needed - and had it at the ready.
2. Paralegals need to "know everything."
At lunch, my paralegal could comment intelligently on what seemed to go right, what worked well, and she worked very well with the clients. I just can't imagine a paralegal who doesn't know what's going on with the case. I love it when my paralegal takes an interest in the case and wants to win too.
3. Paralegals need to "have the confidence of all."
One time, my paralegal went out into the hall for a moment, and I was by myself in the court room, getting ready to present. I kept thinking of a particular exhibit I thought I would need, and I grabbed the trial notebook. It was only about 4 inches thick and I thought in such a small notebook I should have no trouble finding the item. I grew more and more frustrated as I pawed at the notebook, searching. My paralegal came back and said, "Calm down, what is it you need?" Like a magician pulling something from her sleeve, she yanked it right out of the notebook and put it in my hand. Time for the attorney to be a little red-faced—but very grateful. I love it when my paralegal can stay calm and focused, even if I'm on edge or slightly frazzled.
4. Winning through intimidation.
I know sometimes paralegal students complain about having to generate "pretty paper" notebooks with everything not only organized, but looking that way. Another “war story” for you: One time, I was sent to mediation just prior to trial. I was extremely annoyed when they would not let my paralegal into the mediation. She plunked the very neat, well-organized trial notebook into my hands as I went into the side room at court for some last minute mediation. The other party in the mediation kept looking at my trial notebook. Pretty quickly I realized it needed to be very prominently displayed. I started "pawing" through it knowingly, with a little smile. It was thick. It had all kinds of typed labels and tabs—even a proper cover page and side information. It just looked good. I riffled the pages while looking confident. They didn't have that. I did. They knew I was organized and ready to go—really organized. Sure enough, the settlement numbers came around to a number that finally worked for my client. I know what happened—even without having to show all of the trial notebook's contents, it was, literally, "winning through intimidation." My paralegal was disappointed that she didn't get into the mediation (me too, but we were both, of course, glad for the client). But she was there in the form of her trial notebook, and she played a key role in winning a good settlement.
5. The rapid-fire paper blizzard
It is vital to have multiple copies of exhibits. Although paper may at some point disappear in trials, it's still around. The future is electronic, but in the meantime, it’s important to have multiple copies of documents. I was in a JP court proceeding once where we were up against a litigant who was not represented by an attorney (big mistake). She did not have a trial paralegal—my client and I did. It was almost funny: she would ignore us, then cozy up to the judge on the bench, and hand the judge an "exhibit" (un-numbered, un-marked, and un-named) and try to tell the judge about it and its relation to the case. Before I could cut in with an objection, I noticed the judge was already pretty agitated. No wonder! When we had presented our exhibits, my trial paralegal had multiple marked copies available. As we introduced an exhibit, one copy went to the judge, one to my client, one for me, and one (always last) for the other side. (That way the judge has the most time to see it - the other side the least - less time to think up an objection. And in a regular court, don't forget one for the court reporter!) The judge finally started reprimanding the other side for not showing the opposing side (us) her exhibits. We were organized, professional, and moving right along, and judges love that.
6. Storm-ravaged trial notebooks and reconstructibility
Good paralegals and good trial notebooks stay together through thick and thin, shot and shell. I don't know quite how it happens, but the best-organized trial notebook can become somewhat disheveled in the course of a slam bang trial. Somehow, the paralegal must keep it organized. Those extra copies can really pay off. At the end of one trial recently, the judge called for all exhibits—including those that were not admitted—to be presented to the court reporter. I was so proud of my paralegal, she got all of it together very quickly and presented it in an organized fashion. One more parting tip for paralegals and trial notebooks: Another handy item to have at trial is a checksheet for exhibits: Offered, Admitted, Denied, and No decision. That way, the paralegal actually keeps the tally as the trial moves.
A good trial paralegal with a good trial notebook? I don't leave the office and head for court without one!
James I. Wiedemer is a licensed attorney in the state of Texas and is Board Certified in Commercial and Residential Real Estate by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He has written several real estate books— Texas Real Estate Contracts, The Homeowner's Guide to Foreclosure, The Smart Money Guide to Bargain Homes, and Texas Agency—and has been a Center for Advanced Legal Studies’ Real Estate Law professor for over 25 years.
...And One Possible and Practical Solution
According to a survey conducted by Reuters, “More than 40 percent of recent U.S. college graduates are underemployed or need more training to get on a career track.”
The survey also discloses that more than 25% of these graduates have already enrolled in a Master’s degree program. The perception that a master’s degree will satisfy the need for more training is valid provided the degree is skill-based; otherwise, if the degree is more philosophical in nature, the graduate might still need more training to gain a career.
Another public opinion survey that was released by Northwestern University and published in The Chronicle of Higher Education stated that “American adults and employers want colleges to produce graduates who can think critically and creatively and can communicate orally and in writing.”
Reaching for that goal without including marketable skills in the student’s degree plan could explain why graduates are underemployed and in need of more training. Evidently, just thinking and communicating, in and of itself, doesn’t pay all that well.
The need for more training
At some point, regardless of educational accomplishments, most of us still need to be taught how to do something to earn a decent paycheck. Adding training to the already acquired critical thinking and communication skills seems like a reasonable solution to the problem.
To this end, some college graduates go to law school to be an attorney; others go to medical school to be a doctor, or to dental school to be a dentist, or nursing school to be a nurse, while still others go to paralegal school to be a paralegal. These specialized schools are designed to prepare their graduates to become the professional they sought to be.
A practical solution
All the professions listed above require a license to practice, all except one—the paralegal profession. But that profession does require a practical skill-set compatible with thinking critically and creatively and communicating both orally and in writing. For years, college graduates have been attending paralegal schools to become proficient in the duties and requirements of working in the legal profession. Students are taught to convert what is learned into a finished work product—they learn practical, concrete skills. Just like in other professional schools, all students in paralegal schools are focused in the same direction and want to start their legal career with the real-world skills needed to perform and impress… and, get paid.
Attorneys and paralegals are alike
Attorneys are also thinkers and communicators. Their educational path was clear. Once out of college, they decided they needed to learn how to do something. As a general rule, they earned a high enough GPA and did well enough on the LSAT to be accepted into law school. After spending three years there, it was on to the bar review to prepare for the bar exam. Finally, pass the bar, get sworn in, you are an attorney. It was recently reported that, on the average, an attorney completes law school today with $116,000.00 in student loan debt.
Since paralegals are expected to do everything an attorney can do, they must perform at a comparable level. Unauthorized Practice of Law rules limit certain duties of the paralegal, but all in all, paralegals are charged with a pretty challenging task that requires proper preparation. No attorney is willing to put their law license at risk due to sloppy work of their paralegal.
But, unlike becoming an attorney, there is no educational authority governing paralegal training. The path to becoming a paralegal is can be confusing at first. Those thinking and communicating skills developed in college can be called upon to help determine the path best suited for you.
The truth about short-term paralegal programs
So called “short-term” paralegal programs last for just a few weeks and are often misconstrued as being part of a respected college’s program offerings. The host college usually has nothing to do with the short-term paralegal program except lease out empty classroom space to non-affiliated contractors and then issue a certificate upon completion. How could anyone have suspected that? Many professional paralegal associations publish policy statements on such programs. Look at the American Association of Paralegal Educators (AAfPE) and the National Association of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) for disclosure statements on such programs.
You could back track
Many college graduates started out at their local community college before going on and earning their bachelor’s degree. Community colleges have gotten into the fray of offering paralegal programs along with other colleges that offer full-blown Master’s degree programs. College graduates are hesitant to retrace their roots and return to the community college while others are hesitant to move forward to pursue a Master’s that may not be skill-based enough to satisfy their need for more training. What’s a college graduate to do?
Or, you could specialize
As Co-Founder and President of Center for Advanced Legal Studies (CALS), I understandably have a bias towards our paralegal programs. We have been specializing solely in paralegal education since before the fall of the Berlin wall. It’s all we do. We expect our students to be diligent and to perform at a high level while attending class, and in turn, employers can expect a well-prepared legal professional when they hire our graduates.
We have over 5,000 graduates in our local area who have chosen CALS to be their pathway to enter the paralegal profession. Through the latest online delivery options, we have expanded our reach and offer the same high-quality paralegal programs throughout the land. We also offer career services to our students and graduates, and our job placement rates are outstanding—we have more employers requesting for our graduates than we have graduates to fill the paralegal positions! For college graduates, the focused and practical approach of CALS is a perfect fit and a great option to consider.
Our students realize the need for more training to get on a career track, and are learning their hands-on skill-set at one of the most prestigious paralegal schools in the country, all the while incurring just a small fraction of the debt of law school and/or other professional training endeavors. Don’t take my word for it; find out for yourself why so many have chosen Center for Advanced Legal Studies to begin their paralegal career.
As you can tell, our Co-Founder and President, Mr. Doyle Happe, is quite passionate about the paralegal training and career services offered at Center for Advanced Legal Studies. Are you interested in learning a concrete skill-set to get you started toward an actual career? Contact us as email@example.com or 1.800.446.6931. We are committed to the success of our students!
Having a network of professional contacts and colleagues is a huge advantage in today’s working world. It gives you a support system full of people who do the same type of work you do. It provides a group of knowledgeable people to contact if you have any questions, concerns, or need to refer someone or obtain a reference. And we all know it’s easier to find employment or grow in the position you have when you “know people.”
But how does one build their professional network? At Center for Advanced Legal Studies, we want our students and graduates to thrive in their paralegal careers, and that includes growing their professional network and always sharpening their knowledge and skill-set. But that’s not always easy. Maybe you’re like me, and networking doesn’t come quite as easily to you as it does to some of our more extroverted colleagues. But everyone can make the conscious decision to pursue building his or her network. Here are 3 simple steps to help augment your career with a strong network of legal professionals.
1. Take Advantage of Training Time
Whether you’re still in paralegal school or taking CLE workshops to advance your paralegal career, use that time wisely to get to know the people around you. You never know if a fellow paralegal student may continue on to law school and become a paralegal employer years down the road, or if the person sitting next to you at a seminar may work at a law firm where you’ve been wanting to interview. Also, making friends with your fellow students means you have a group of people to commiserate with when you have a tough assignment, and people to encourage and congratulate you along your career path. Engage with the people around you, make friends, and exchange contact information whenever you’re in a time of training for your paralegal career!
2. Join Professional Networks and Attend Events
There are myriads of national and local professional associations you can join, and these associations host networking events, CLE seminars, workshops, conventions, and fun parties. There’s no reason not to join and attend events. Push yourself out of your comfort zone, make small talk, exchange cards, add to your paralegal knowledge, and make friends! I promise you won’t regret it. Here is a short list of paralegal associations to consider:
National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)
National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)
Association of Legal Administrators (ALA)
National Association for Legal Secretaries (NALS)
Here’s a list of some of the associations local to Center for Advanced Legal Studies’ campus in Texas:
Houston Paralegal Association (HPA)
Houston Metropolitan Paralegal Association (HMPA)
State Bar of Texas, Paralegal Division (TXPD)
Capital Area Paralegal Association (CAPA)
Houston Corporate Paralegal Association (HCPA)
Dallas Area Paralegal Association (DAPA)
Not from Texas? Click here for Paralegal Today's list of paralegal associations and to search for associations specific to your state.
3. Use Social Media
With today’s technology, you don’t have to be a wiz with small talk to be a great networker. Social media has made professional networking even easier. Many people use Facebook and Twitter to network (and for heaven’s sake, keep your accounts professional, paralegals!), but the primary professional networking platform of all the social media sites is LinkedIn.
Read what our Director of Career Services, Tina Ghanavati, wrote in another blog post about the importance of LinkedIn:
“LinkedIn is an interconnected network of experienced professionals from around the world. You can find and collaborate with qualified professionals that you need to work with to accomplish your goals. A professional network of contacts gives you an advantage in your career. When I was a headhunter, I was always on LinkedIn searching for candidates to fill positions. […]
If you don’t have a LinkedIn profile, then create one as soon as possible. When you join, create a profile that summarizes your professional expertise, skills, and accomplishments. You can then form connections by inviting trusted contacts to join LinkedIn and connect to you. Through your network, you can:
- Be discovered for business opportunities
- Gain new insights from joining discussions with other professionals
- Discover inside connections that can help you land a job
- Join groups related to your desired position (Paralegals, join The Paralegal Network or CALS on LinkedIn!)”
To Wrap It Up
You don’t have to be an expert schmoozer or bang down people’s doors to grow your paralegal network and ultimately advance your paralegal career. You simply have to make a little effort to connect with the fellow professionals around you, whether in school, at professional events, or online. So, paralegals and paralegal students, get out there and build your professional network!
Katie Fridsma is the Administrative and Marketing Assistant at Center for Advanced Legal Studies. If you are interested in learning more about our paralegal programs and our career services, visit www.paralegal.edu or contact us at 1-800-446-6931 or firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to seeing how we can help you build your career and professional network!
As a speech professor at Center for Advanced Legal Studies, at the beginning of each semester, I tell my students in the AAS Degree paralegal program that one of the goals of the speech class is for them to find their voices. By that, I mean that I want them to discover their true way of expressing themselves, whether it is humorously, poetically, or perhaps with an authoritative tone they didn’t know they possessed.
I also point out to them that they are each born with certain qualities to their physical voices that they may or may not like. Of course, it is possible to change the physical voice. Actors, for example, besides ridding themselves of accents, often work with a coach to lower their voice or make it more resonant or vibrant, and they learn breathing techniques that help with vocal projection.
Vocal Viruses are Infectious Habits
Why, then, when we put so much focus on sounding good, would people deliberately adopt weird vocal habits that are unsettling to the listener? Currently, for example, vocal “fads” exist that make the voice sound gravelly, childish, and whiny. There is even a grating vocal style known as “tattered voice,” heard in both male and female actors and voiceover artists. These people sound as if they have been up for three days straight, chain smoking and drinking Everclear.
Voice experts have dubbed these unattractive vocal habits “vocal viruses,” referring to the ease with which they are transmitted, spread like internet content that “goes viral.” The term “virus” also reflects the notion that bad vocal habits infect and compromise the act of communication—not to mention, they are as unpleasant to the listener as coming down with a bad cold.
If you are part of a group that is together day after day, whether in a family or in a law firm, it is easy to unconsciously pick up a bad vocal habit. Speaking and listening to others is how, since the dawn of civilization, mankind has perpetuated language—and unappealing vocal quirks.
Here, I’ve identified 4 common vocal viruses and suggest how to keep from adopting them. At Center for Advanced Legal Studies (CALS), we want you to grow your career, not make it sick.
1. Blame it on Britney.
Lately, the media have reported on a rampant vocal virus called “vocal fry,” a speech habit practiced mostly by women. Vocal fry occurs when someone is speaking normally and then, towards the end of a phrase or sentence, lowers the pitch (pitch = the highness or lowness) of her voice while making a croaking sound. Think Kim Kardashian, practitioner par excellence of this scourge on the spoken word.
The term comes from “vocal fry register,” which indicates the lowest notes a singer can achieve. These notes are reached by allowing air to pass through the vocal cords, which produces a rattling sound. The singers Britney Spears and Ke$ha have long used it, which is where many young women originally picked it up.
You can hear frequent examples of this bizarre trend by listening to NPR’s radio programming (on 88.7 FM in Houston). Many of the younger female journalists combine vocal fry with a clipped, affected speech pattern. The resulting delivery sounds snobbish, pseudo-intellectual and off-putting.
2. Like, totally!
In the early 80s, Moon Zappa made a novelty record that parodied the mall-dwelling teens of the San Fernando Valley. Who knew that three decades later grown-up men and women around the country would be using the “Valspeak” she was mocking?
The spread of this goofy dialect is stealthy because it is made up of a number of components, and it can infiltrate your speech in bits and pieces. You might only pick up the habit of drawing out the last syllable of a word (“I was with my fatherrrrr”) or you might couple that with rushing words together prior to a drawn-out word (“I-live-in-a-really-good-part-of-Sugar-laaaaand”).
Valspeak requires that you use wild variations of inflection, bringing your pitch way up or down on certain syllables. Also, vowels sounds are changed, with the short “a” replaced by “ah” (“The restaurant was just jahmed”) and the long “o” becoming “ew” (as in, “I’m SEW SURE!”). Wait a minute, am I teaching you how to do this?
Needless to say, it’s hard to take someone seriously who spouts Valspeak. It causes you to sound trivial and unprofessional. The last person who wants to hear you using this patois is anyone you deal with on the job.
3. "Are you listening?"
For me, a particularly annoying vocal virus is “upspeak,” a fad especially among Millennials (ages 25 to 34) that turns a declarative statement into a question. Upspeak is a big part of Valspeak but it has assumed a vocal niche of its own.
Inflection plays the key role in creating upspeak. At the end of a statement such as, “I signed up for a workshop,” the voice rises in pitch on the last syllable. The pitch is so high that it creates a whiny sound as well as an interrogative one, making the effect doubly annoying.
With upspeak, a string of sentences comes out like one long query: “I signed up for a workshop? But it turned out I didn’t like it? So I found another one?” The listener feels like s/he is being prodded, as if the speaker is saying, “Are you paying attention?” with the subtext of, “Do I make myself clear?” which leads to the inferred subtext, “Do I know what I’m saying?”
Upspeak makes you sound tentative and insecure, diminishing your authority every time you speak. This trend is so widespread among Millennials, both men and women, that it threatens to become the norm. Until that happens, and even afterwards, don’t let it creep into your speech.
4. "I'm smart, but not credible."
Recently, I heard a female reporter on a national radio show talking about the stock market. Let’s say her report went something like this: “The market took a big hit last week, its worst weekly performance since April. The Dow was down 1.6 percent, an abrupt end to a solid month of gains...” and so on. The woman knew her stuff. Her report was clear, concise, and delivered in the high-pitched, whispery voice of a seven-year old.
Ladies, we must banish this childish vocal virus, now! It has spread to every facet of commerce and industry that women populate, which is to say, it’s everywhere. You hear brilliant women attorneys, financial analysts, educators, scientists, all speaking like little girls. The intelligence is there, the vocabulary is there, but the mature woman has vanished without a trace.
I’m not here to expound on why this disagreeable practice has taken hold, although I have my theory. Frankly, I don’t know the percentage of women who never develop a grown-up’s voice versus the percentage who adopt a childish voice in adulthood because they think it’s useful or prudent. All I know is that nothing puts a damper on one’s credibility like a tiny little voice piping up in a meeting or speaking to a client on the phone.
Ward off the virus!
How do you keep from succumbing to a vocal virus? First, you have to recognize one when you hear it. Become aware of people’s vocal patterns and styles in general. For example, does someone at work speak especially fast or unusually slowly? Do you know someone with a musical voice who uses a variety of inflection? You can train your ear to detect these characteristics just by paying attention. That makes you more apt to identify someone’s bad vocal habit, and more likely to catch yourself if you start using it.
Another way to keep your vocal habits on the straight and narrow is to be deliberate when you speak. For example, don’t rush! Talking fast puts out the welcome mat for Valspeak to drop in. Talk at a normal pace and be mindful of using proper diction. The more you practice good speech habits, the less chance a vocal virus has of sneaking up on you.
Finally, if someone tells you that you’re talking a certain way, believe her. A friend might say to you, “Oh, that’s so cute. You sound like a Valley Girl.” This may be a lighthearted way of cautioning you to brush up on your adult speech habits. Even if your friend does think it’s cute, the practice is detrimental to your career.
Research shows that how you say something affects a listener far more than what you actually say. To gain and maintain trust, respect, and credibility in your paralegal career, I invite you to embrace your true voice and stay true to it.
Links to some examples of these vocal viruses:
Little Girl (Click on “Listen to the Story,” then go 2:00 into audio)
Gretchen Havens teaches Introduction to Speech Communication at Center for Advanced Legal Studies. Through CALS, she also conducts workshops for paralegals seeking to improve their communication skills in the workplace. She has taught “Presenting Yourself” for the School of Continuing Studies at Rice University, served as a private voiceover coach, and taught advertising courses for the School of Continuing Studies at Rice and the Women’s Institute of Houston.
1. Connecting to the Law
Her parents might say that she likes to argue, but Gretchen Trower enjoys questioning, researching, and building her case, which makes her well-suited to a paralegal career. And she just graduated from Center for Advanced Legal Studies and is in her second month as a paralegal, the profession that she has dreamed about for almost 20 years.
It was in an undergraduate political science class at the University of Missouri where Gretchen's passion for the law was sparked. She became very interested in how the law affects government policy and society. The connection between courtroom decisions, policy, and people’s everyday lives made her want to become a lawyer. She began to study for the LSAT, the entrance exam for most law schools. But her plans changed after marrying a soldier she met while serving in the military.
Over time, Gretchen's interest in the law did not wane; but with a husband overseas and now a young daughter; law school would take too much precious time from her child. So she began to explore the paralegal profession and discovered Center for Advanced Legal Studies (CALS).
2. Connecting to Paralegal Faculty
Gretchen was impressed with the program that CALS offered. It was challenging, and she had to work very hard to earn a 3.9 GPA. But, as she says, "If it had been too easy, I wouldn't have wanted anything to do with it. I feel like I've earned my certificate." Long-time faculty member Aida Ziemnicki was a favorite because "she had the highest expectations for her students" and most rose to the challenge. All of the instructors shared valuable real-life experience which brought the paralegal role into focus.
3. Connecting to Paralegal Students
The other students in Gretchen's online paralegal classes were very diverse, coming from all age groups, levels of experience, and locales. But many connections were formed, and some still keep in touch. Paralegal students can create a professional support network even as their paralegal careers are just getting started.
4. Connecting to Paralegal Staff
Gretchen is very appreciative of the CALS staff, who were invaluable in helping her transition into a paralegal career. From Director of Career Services, Tina Ghanavati, who was not only successful in setting Gretchen up in her current paralegal position, but also was emotionally supportive along the way, to Director of Admissions, James Scheffer, who even after Gretchen had graduated the school returned a phone call offering advice and answers to a question about legal transcription, Gretchen feels that the connections made at CALS will stay with her for years.
5. Connecting to Attorneys
Now Gretchen is happily working as the only paralegal in the Executive Suites of the Lyric Centre among 40 independent attorneys. And there, she is building even more connections. In only four weeks of employment, she has gone from working for only one attorney to ten attorneys, and another just asked for her help.
What about her past dream of law school? In the future, that may be a possibility for Gretchen, but right now she is placing priority on her connection to her family, especially her daughter. Working as a paralegal allows her to enjoy a fulfilling career in the legal field while helping to support her family.
Are you interested in the connections you could make at Center for Advanced Legal Studies? We would love to answer any questions you might have about the paralegal profession or our paralegal programs. Contact us at email@example.com or call 1.800.446.6931.
Joy Oden is an Adjunct Professor at Center for Advanced Legal Studies and a Guest Blogger for CALS. She writes about her students because she is continually amazed at their desire to change their lives, their ability to overcome difficult circumstances, and their determination to help others.
As an Admissions Advisor at Center for Advanced Legal Studies and a retired attorney, I always ask prospective students what qualities or attributes they possess that would make them a good paralegal. Many times I hear:
“I love the law, which I think will make me a good paralegal.”
“I enjoy legal research.”
“I enjoy reading.”
“I am punctual.”
And of course: “I am fairly organized.”
A love of the law, reading, punctuality, and research skills all contribute to a person’s ability to become a successful paralegal. Above those, organization is key to excelling both as a paralegal student and as a working paralegal.
Organization skills are vital to be an effective paralegal. They facilitate a paralegal’s ability to create and manage calendar systems, track court dates, and meet filing deadlines. Additionally, legal research materials, such as case law, must be organized in a method that they can be easily navigated and retrieved. Documents in a legal case are useless unless they are properly filed and indexed so that the documents may be pulled quickly and easily.
But how does one become organized? Whether you are already a fairly organized person or lacking in that department, organizational skills can always be developed and improved. Here are 4 simple steps to becoming more organized, and ultimately becoming a more efficient paralegal!
1. Make Lists and Prioritize
List-making is one of the most basic and useful skills of an organized person. Keep a list of your monthly, weekly, and daily tasks and responsibilities. Prioritize the tasks on your list by assigning numbers or placing them in order of importance. This will enable you to focus your attention on important tasks first and help you stay motivated to complete everything that needs to be done. You won’t waste time trying to remember or prioritize your next task(s). You don’t ever want to have to tell your attorney that you failed to meet an important deadline because you forgot a task or how important it was.
Your list(s) and calendar(s) should be the first things you review in the morning and the last things you check at night. Once a task or responsibility is completed, check it off your list. Personally, I have always felt a great sense of accomplishment when I review my list at the end of the day and see that all the items have been crossed off.
2. Use a Calendar
Everything should be noted on a calendar. Court appearances, appointments, filing deadlines, reminder emails, and phone calls should all be noted on your calendar. Update your calendar regularly, confirm appointments as necessary, and, as noted above, check your calendar first thing in the morning and at the end of the day.
3. Keep a Clean and Orderly Desk
Many people have the habit of piling their desks with files, papers, notepads, and other documents. Clutter creates a confusing and sometimes chaotic work space, resulting in loss of valuable time searching for important files or client documents. An organized work space requires that clutter be tamed as part of your daily routine. Always leave time to file papers and documents regularly. Don’t let them pile up.
4. File Documents
Maintaining, updating, and filing the documents in a client’s file is an essential responsibility of all paralegals. File, file, file. Don’t be a diva when it comes to filing by waiting for someone else to do it for you. No paralegal wants to tell their attorney or client they have misplaced important documents. Whenever possible, make copies of a client’s documents for your records and return the originals to them.
Simply adding a client’s documents to their file is not adequate. If a file is unorganized or pieced together in a haphazard manner, making it difficult to navigate, you can cause your attorney wasted time, frustration, and embarrassment in front of a client or judge. Files must be organized and documents indexed appropriately so they can be easily retrieved.
Paralegals with strong organization skills tend to be efficient, punctual, and reliable paralegals. Developing your organization skills can help make you an indispensable asset for an attorney or law firm. Take the time to apply these 4 tips for better organization, even as a student or in your personal life. You’ll be thankful you did!
Elaine Prappas, J.D., has experience in every aspect of the paralegal field, as a paralegal student, paralegal, practicing attorney, and paralegal instructor. She is now an Admissions Advisor at Center for Advanced Legal Studies, and she looks forward to helping you achieve your career goals. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 1.800.446.6931 for more information on the paralegal career or our paralegal programs.
As someone who helps graduates find employment, the one question I get asked the most by students is “How am I supposed to gain experience when most employers won’t hire without it?” Students in all schools face this dilemma when they near completion of their education. Even students in paralegal programs. So, how can you gain work experience when no one will give you a chance?
At Center for Advanced Legal Studies (CALS), students have the opportunity to complete an externship at a law firm or legal department in order to gain experience they can include on their resumes. But not all schools provide this experience. If not, don’t get discouraged. Stay positive and pro-active. Here are 5 ways you can escape the proverbial Catch-22 between experience and employment. (Note: this blog post is aimed specifically toward paralegal students/graduates, but can apply to all college graduates!)
1. Evaluate and Advance Your Skills
What are your strong skills? For paralegal students, are those skills transferable to the legal field? Knowing what skills you have will enable you to best present yourself during an interview. When you do not have experience, your education and knowledge is your best ammunition. For example, if you have a background in IT, then you can highlight those skills in your resume and cover letter. Law firms often seek candidates who are computer savvy and proficient in a variety of document management programs. What if you don’t have any work-related skills? Then consider taking continuing education courses, seminars, or workshops. Several of our paralegal students at CALS who have no prior legal experience take NALA’s Certified Paralegal Exam to increase their marketability. Advancing your skills and education will arm you with the confidence of knowing that you have even more to offer potential employers. Advancing your skills could also mean a higher salary, which is always a good thing!
2. Accept a Hybrid or Non-Paralegal Position
If a paralegal position is your goal, first be willing to consider any job with a legal employer: receptionist, file clerk, junior paralegal, etc. Once you are there, you are one step ahead of anyone on the outside trying to get into the firm. I cannot stress enough how important it is to consider every job that is presented to you. Never think any job or any job duty is beneath you. One example for you: one CALS’ graduate wanted to work in Intellectual Property Law, so she accepted a position at an IP firm working as a receptionist/legal assistant. It wasn’t initially the dream position for her, but her goal was to get her foot in the door and work her way up. After a short time, she secured her coveted position as an Intellectual Property Paralegal at a well-known international law firm. Don’t underestimate the ability to work your way up to your dream job.
As we mentioned before, the paralegal students at Center for Advanced Legal Studies have the opportunity to complete an externship to gain valuable experience working as a paralegal before they begin their job search. While we help facilitate this for our students, we understand that some schools don’t offer this assistance. If not, don’t be afraid to be proactive! Contact your school about any possibilities of you arranging your own internship. If this is possible, research law firms you are interested in and contact them about arranging an internship. You’d be surprised how often experience can be gained by those who are proactive and who go out and make it happen—and don’t underestimate how impressive that could be to a future employer. Extern/Internships can be especially valuable, not only because they add to your skills and experience, but also because they could end with a job offer if you are a good fit and prove yourself a significant asset to the firm/corporation.
4. Spread the Word
Access all your networks, including the students you know from paralegal school. Keep in touch with your former classmates and ask them where they got their job. You can even post your search on your facebook and twitter accounts (and make sure your accounts/pictures/posts, etc. are professional! Employers often look at these!). Ask your friends, family members, and acquaintances if they know of any job openings or attorneys looking for help. We had one paralegal student who got his first job as an Immigration Paralegal at BP through a member at his church. Another student found a job at a law firm through a technician who was working on her plumbing at home. You never know who could lead you to your next job, so spread the word!
5. Get on LinkedIn
LinkedIn is an interconnected network of experienced professionals from around the world. You can find and collaborate with qualified professionals that you need to work with to accomplish your goals. A professional network of contacts gives you an advantage in your career. When I was a headhunter, I was always on LinkedIn searching for candidates to fill positions. Every week I would send the job postings I was working on to all my contacts asking if they knew of any candidates who were looking for a job. The same concept could be applied when looking for a job. Send messages to your contacts asking for leads.
If you don’t have a LinkedIn profile, then create one as soon as possible. When you join, create a profile that summarizes your professional expertise, skills, and accomplishments. You can then form connections by inviting trusted contacts to join LinkedIn and connect to you. Through your network, you can:
- Be discovered for business opportunities
- Gain new insights from joining discussions with other professionals
- Discover inside connections that can help you land a job
- Join groups related to your desired position (Paralegals, join The Paralegal Network or CALS on LinkedIn!)
Congrats, You Secured a Position! Now What?
When you land that first job, do your absolute best. Learn the day-to-day functions and inner workings of the law office. Observe what you need to learn, especially if your goal is to work your way up to your dream position. Keep your eyes and ears open so that you can see firsthand how the paralegals and lawyers work together. Be aware of the roles of other legal support staff (secretaries, litigation support, project management, etc.). Watch how lawyers treat clients. Study the firm hierarchy, and don’t get involved in office politics. Learn as much as you can and be willing to help out in any department. Your first job may not be your last, but your professional reputation will follow you wherever you go. Lawyers have a tightly knitted network. If you do an excellent job, they can help you advance your career.
Tina Ghanavati is the Director of Career Services at Center for Advanced Legal Studies and has many years of experience helping students and graduates attain externships and employment. Are you interested in a paralegal career or the Externships and Career Services offered by Center for Advanced Legal Studies? Contact us at email@example.com or 1.800.446.6931.